Bassey: Nigeria needs experienced senators

THE general knowledge about term limits for the executive branch of government perhaps makes people feel that the legislature also has term limits. It becomes quite a struggle for a member of the legislature to make it to a third term; and when it comes to a fourth term, s/he may be seen as greedy, selfish, ‘sit tight.’ This is not made easy at all, considering the political custom of zoning. Zoning seems very entrenched in the Nigerian political psyche, such that excellence and merit are many times subordinated. Zoning could be seen as a form of social or contributive justice, where room is made for inclusion, for participation of weaker members, for those who but for the ‘affirmative action’ would not have had access. Federal Character is a form of zoning. Although there may be extreme abuses, truth remains that without it, many states would be left out of federal appointments  and assignments. In a culture where the expectation is not really optimal productivity but rewards and clientelism, sections of the populace would be completely left out were not for a certain level of zoning. People feel cheated when their tribesman or clans man is left out; the clamour continues until s/he is given a seat. One could say that the post 2011 election violence for instance was a reaction by angry youths who felt their turn for political leadership of the country had been ‘stolen’ from them, even when the outcome was the result of an electoral contest.

   No matter the advantages, zoning sometimes leads to a blindness of the eyes of the mind, a clouded ability to see the good, the common good. This may be what is happening in some of the Senatorial Districts, where outstanding legislators are having a rough time getting a mandate to go back to both chambers of the National Assembly, with the direct consequence that Nigeria may be robbed of some of its finest legislators yet if this is not remedied. 

   I read with keen interest ABC Nwolise’s article in The Guardian on the need to retain experienced senators. I agree with him completely. There is need to sensitize our people first of all about the caliber of persons sent to the national legislature, and secondly on the need to ensure stability in the national legislature through returning those who have performed creditably in spite of their zones of origin; in short, to abrogate zoning as far as the national legislature is concerned. We have heard about legislators who spent up to 50 years in the Senate of the United States, or congressmen who spent up to 30 years. When the Catholic Secretariat organised a world congress on family and human life in May last year, one of the resource persons was Congressman Smith, who had spent more than 25 years in the U.S. Congress. In an environment where tenure is two years, we can imagine that he had stood and won elections for more than 12 times. 

   If we would not eschew zoning from the state legislature, let communities at least spare the national legislature from the usual zoning. State legislation so far has little or no impact, as the legislators are more or less appendages to the executive irrespective of which party is in power; zoning could continue at that level, as whether there is a house or not is mainly to fulfill all righteousness. At the national level, however, there is apparent separation of powers and the legislature, especially the Senate, has risen to the occasion severally to stabilize the polity. Talking of outstanding Senators in Nigeria, one would not fail to mention Ndoma Egba, Ekweremadu and, of course, David Mark the Senate President. Perhaps they are outstanding because of their leadership positions but the Senate leadership of Mark, Ekweremadu and Ndoma Egba make a trio of wise men that should be allowed by their constituencies to go on  serving Nigeria. Among the three, Senator Mark seems to have the easiest ride always, as he goes back unchallenged to the Senate during each election cycle. Ekweremadu is troubled by his governor who wants to retire to the Senate, while Ndoma Egba is constricted by the zoning wahala. While the Obubras feel they are overdue to clinch the House of Reps ticket, the Etung feel it is their turn to take the Senate ticket from Ikom. Owan Enoh is, therefore, compelled to struggle the ticket with Ndoma Egba whereas as an excellent National Assembly member who has done three terms, with such experience and clout in the House, he could do better remaining in the green chamber. The people of Central should sit down and talk and allow Owan Enoh  to continue in the House while Ndoma Egba goes back to the Senate. At this point in the history of our nation, legislators like Ndoma Egba, Ekweremadu, David Mark, should not be seen as representing an enclave, they should be seen as representing Nigeria. We have gone through so many changes as a nation that we should begin to mould icons of stability. We don’t always have to start afresh.

   What works against some excellent legislators is this newly baptized doctrine of stomach infrastructure. Many constituents believe that a good legislator is one that spreads the money; it doesn’t matter whether one has contributed to debates or not, or how many projects one has influenced for appropriation. Of course in a country where social safety nets are absent, people run to politicians for the slightest relief: school fees of wards, medical bills, rent, etc.

  Legislators were able to overcome the initial challenge of  ‘executive expectations’ from their constituents by introducing constituency projects; now they could go home and commission several projects which contract awards they directly influence. The other expectation, of access, is still hampered by the fact that unlike other climes where constituents access their representatives in order to make input into policy and legislation, most access in Nigeria is for personal financial relief.  Legislators therefore make themselves as scarce as they could, except to those with high electoral mobilization value. Nigerian legislators need to improve competence on appropriation so that waste is minimized and funds and legislation promulgated towards areas that truly affect the lives of the common person; that way they would minimize the daily harassment for financial assistance that is their lot. Or perhaps it could be legislated for the legislator’s office to dispense limited relief to individuals, with appropriate documentary support, and this list published quarterly (with the high risk of increasing dependency), as this is truly part of the burden of those in elective positions. Whether the legislator is interpreted as ‘accessible’ or not to his constituents, outstanding national legislators need to be disentangled from this web of primitive expectations and given the needed support  to continue to contribute to the maturation of the legislature in Nigeria to take its place as the primordial democratic institution.

• Fr. Bassey works at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria and wrote from the Vatican.

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